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KERALA LETTER
Solar scam reveals decadent polity and sociery
A Dalit poet writing in English, based in Kerala
Foreword to Media Tides on Kerala Coast
Teacher seeks V.S. Achuthanandan's intervention to end harassment by partymen
Change of heart? Or stooping to conquer?

വായന

26 March, 2013

Unsteady coalition plods on

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government is tottering with the loss of two large coalition partners in a span of six months but plods on, confident in the feeling that it will not be overthrown as few parties want to face elections immediately.

The Trinamool Congress, the Congress party’s largest ally, walked out of the coalition last September protesting against the decisions to open the retail sector to foreign direct investment and limit the subsidy on liquefied petroleum gas. The exit of its 19 members reduced the UPA to a minority with only 254 members in the 544-strong Lok Sabha. However, there was no threat to the government as it was supported from outside by the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party which have 22 and 21 members respectively.

Last week the next biggest constituent, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, with 18 members, pulled out of the alliance protesting against the government’s failure to press for censure of Sri Lanka in the UN Human Rights Council for violation of the rights of the island’s Tamil minority.

This further reduced the coalition’s strength in parliament, but the continued support of the SP and the BSP gives it the necessary numbers to claim a majority in the house. However, it is at the mercy of the SP and the BSP, either of which can bring it down at any time.

The SP’s Mulayam Singh Yadav and the BSP’s Mayawati are both ambitious leaders capable of driving hard bargains. Arch rivals in Uttar Pradesh politics, circumstances have forced them into the same side at the Centre.

The DMK had remained in the coalition without demur during the closing stages of the civil war in Sri Lanka when atrocities against the Tamils took place. Few, therefore, believe that its decision to withdraw support to the UPA and pull out its five ministers was dictated by sympathy for Sri Lankan Tamils.

DMK chief M Karunanidhi had been sulking since his daughter Kanimozhi, MP, and party colleague and former Communication Minister A Raja were arrested by the Central Bureau of Investigation in 2011 on corruption charges. He chose to quit the coalition on the Sri Lankan human rights violations since it is an emotive issue in Tamil Nadu.

As soon as Karunanidhi announced his intention to leave the UPA, the Congress rushed three senor ministers, AK Antony, P Chidambaram and Ghulam Nabi Azad, to Chennai to mollify him. This was not easy since the government is keen to avoid doing anything which will push the Sri Lankan administration closer to China.

Yet, in a bid to placate him, the Congress leadership explored, against its own best judgement, the possibility of pushing through Parliament a resolution critical of Sri Lankan human rights violations. The move did not find favour with the Bharatiya Janata Party, the main opposition, and other parties like the SP and the Trinamool Congress. The aborted effort revealed a North-South divide in the country on the Sri Lankan issue.

The Congress, which has 203 members in the Lok Sabha, is now left with no ally with two-digit strength in the house, its largest remaining partners being Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar’s National Congress Party (nine members), Civil Aviation Minister Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal (five) and Jammu and Kashmir National Conference (three).

Mayawati lost control of UP, the largest state, which sends 80 members to the Lok Sabha, in last year’s Assembly elections. She will not precipitate a situation which will lead to immediate parliamentary elections as it is unlikely to improve her party’s position.

Mulayam Singh Yadav may be thinking differently. The SP won the Assembly elections in the state and he has installed his son, Akhilesh Yadav, as the chief minister. He will not hesitate to pull the rug from under the UPA’s feet if he thinks the time is ripe for a kill. He knows that if he waits too long the ground situation may change to his disadvantage.

Facing increasing isolation as the elections approach, the Congress has begun a search for new allies. One party whose name figures in the speculation in this connection is the Janata Dal (United), the BJP’s largest partner in the National Democratic Alliance. The party heads the government in Bihar, a state with 40 seats in the Lok Sabha. The price Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has set for the support to any government at the Centre is a special package for his economically backward state.

A realignment of forces ahead of the elections is a possibility. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, March 26, 2013

19 March, 2013

A diplomatic mess

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The case of the two Italian marines who shot and killed two Indian fishermen at sea, off the Kerala coast, a year ago has spilled out of the courtroom, creating a diplomatic mess.

The marines were on anti-piracy duty aboard the Italian tanker MV Enrico Lexie which was going from Singapore to Egypt. According to the Italians, they opened fire in self-defence, mistaking the men in the fishing boat, Saint Antony, for pirates. Apparently they did not exercise due caution. The fishermen were unarmed. Somali-based pirates operate in the Arabian Sea but they are not active near the Kerala coast.

The Italians claimed the incident occurred in international waters. However, the Kerala police, which registered a criminal case against the marines, said the vessel was in Indian waters or in the contiguous zone. The positions of the two craft were not fixed with the help of their logbooks or the global positioning system.

The offending vessel was under the Italian flag and the alleged killers were members of the Italian armed forces. When the Indian coast guard brought the ship to Kochi and the Kerala police took the marines into custody, the Italian consul general in Mumbai flew into the port city to safeguard the interests of the ship and the marines.

Overlooking the fact that a sovereign state was involved, the Indian government left the issue to Kerala, presumably to avoid the opposition dragging the name of Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, who is Congress president and chairperson of the ruling United Progressive Alliance, into the matter.

Kerala’s Congress-led government was facing a crucial Assembly by-election at the time. The regional and national media’s vigorous pursuit of the fishermen’s families’ cry for justice put pressure on it to adopt a tough line.

Under the UN Convention on the Laws of the Seas (UNCLOS), domestic laws apply fully in the territorial waters, which extend up to 12 nautical miles from the coastline. In the contiguous zone which extends to 12 nautical miles beyond the territorial waters, local laws apply in respect of some subjects. In certain situations, the home state and flag state have concurrent jurisdiction.

The Indian government failed to apply its mind to the issue of jurisdiction. When the marines challenged the Kerala proceedings against them, the Supreme Court ruled that the state has no jurisdiction since the shooting occurred in the contiguous zone, and not in the territorial waters. It said the central government can prosecute the marines under the domestic law, subject to the provisions of Article 100 of UNCLOS, which enjoins upon all countries to cooperate in the repression of piracy.

While directing the Centre to set up a special court to try the marines, the Supreme Court said Italy could question India’s jurisdiction invoking the provisions of UNCLOS. Even if India and Italy were found to have concurrent jurisdiction, this directive would hold good, it added.

Within two months of the shooting, the fishermen’s families filed a petition in a local court seeking compensation from the Italian shipowners. With the help of the Catholic Church, which commands the allegiance of a large section of the fishing community, the Italians quickly worked out an out-of-court settlement and paid the two families Rs10 million each.

While insisting on the right to try the marines, India showed them special consideration. In Kerala, they were lodged in a police club or a guest house, not in a jail. In Delhi, they were allowed to stay in the Italian embassy.

Last December, the Kerala high court permitted them to go home to spend Christmas with their families. Last month the Supreme Court allowed them to go to Italy to vote in the elections.

On March 11, the Italian government informed the Indian government that the marines, who were due to return by March 22, would not come. With this, the Italian ambassador, who had given an undertaking in the court guaranteeing their return, fell foul of Indian law. However, it is not easy to punish him as he has diplomatic immunity.

Thirteen months after the shooting the special court to try the marines has still not come up. Given India’s court delays, a final verdict in the case may be a long way off.

When India had lawful custody of the marines, it studiously avoided the diplomatic route. By holding them back Italy is trying to force it to come to the diplomatic path. Both sides having taken false steps, things may well get worse before they can improve. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, March 19, 2013.

12 March, 2013

Neighbourhood challenges

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

China-watchers are speculating on the implications of Beijing’s involvement in infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka and the Maldives, two small countries where India has vital strategic interests. Foreign media accounts speak of a “string of pearls” from Pakistan to Myanmar, comprising Chinese-funded port development projects.

The largest of these is the Hambantota port in southern Sri Lanka, the first stage of which, built at a cost of $360 million, was opened to ships in 2010. When its second stage, for which China has provided $810 million, is completed, it will become the largest port in the region.

Conceived as a refuelling and service point for cargo vessels, Hambantota is expected to handle about 45,000 metric tonnes (MT) of ship fuel this year. In the next two years its handling capacity will go up to 125,000MT. China has also offered $500 million for the expansion of the Colombo port.

Since 2007 China has committed $6.4 billion for various projects in Sri Lanka. Out of this $3.6 billion has been disbursed. An international airport for which China lent $209 million is due to open next week. Chinese companies have secured at least 14 major infrastructure projects in the island without going through the tender process.

Already Sri Lanka’s biggest partner in trade and development, China is all set to assume an even bigger role in its economy. The country expects China to provide more than half of an estimated $21 billion needed for various projects in the next three years.

In the last decade China’s trade with the Maldives has grown from $3 million to $60 million. When the country terminated its airport agreement with the Indian company GMR there were insinuations that it was acting at China’s behest. Later, Maldivian Defence Minister Mohammed Nazim visited China, leading to speculation that President Mohammed Waheed, who seized power ousting elected president Mohamed Nasheed, plans to take relations with China beyond diplomatic and economic levels.

When the Maldives sought a soft loan from China for information technology and communications projects, India was concerned it may have implications for its own security.

The US Congressional Research Office, in a report two years ago, had said China was “building or wanting to build” naval bases along the sea lane linking it with Gulf oil sources. China, it added, was following a “places, not bases” strategy: it was building commercial ports, not military bases.

Around the same time the International Institute for Strategic Studies, London, quoted a retired Chinese naval officer as saying China might set up its first overseas base somewhere in the Middle East. However, the Defence Ministry denied any overseas base was planned.

The emergence of divergent voices from China may be indicative of differences of opinion within its powerful political establishment. Contrary to the conventional view of foreign experts, different views are known to be in contention within it.

Justifying China’s increased presence in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lankan Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is a brother of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, points out that it has a vital interest in the region as it imports 200MT of oil a year to sustain its industry-intensive economy. The Chinese-aided projects in the island are purely commercial, he says.

Sri Lanka receives investments from India, the US and Japan also but they cannot match cash-rich China’s soft loan terms. China provides assistance in the form of cash grants, interest-free loans and long-term concessionary loans on which the interest rate may be as low as two or three per cent.

Some domestic analysts disapprove of Sri Lanka’s excessive dependence on China. A former diplomat, Dayan Jayatilleka, reminds the administration that, unlike Pakistan, Sri Lanka has no land link with China, and it is highly improbable that China will bruise its relations with India over anything other than its own core interests. 

While the interests of India and China do not always coincide the two are sensitive to each other’s vital concerns. Attempts by China to understand India’s position in Afghanistan, which is at variance with that of its long-time ally Pakistan, is a case in point.

The most worrisome aspect of India’s relations with its small neighbours is not China’s growing economic links with them but its own diplomatic and political failures. It has not been able to persuade Sri Lanka to give its Tamil minority a fair deal or the Maldives to respect the rules of democracy. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, March 12, 2013.

05 March, 2013

Doublethink on women's security

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

In the two-and-a-half months since the Delhi gangrape of December 16, which shocked the nation, 65 rape cases have been reported from the national capital — an average of 26 in a month. This points to a fall in the incidence of rape as 568 cases — a monthly average of more than 47 — were reported in 2011, the last full year for which figures are available.

However, there is no room for complacency. Memories of the brutal gangrape are still fresh in people’s minds. A firm conclusion about its impact can only be drawn after watching the trend over a long period.

Meanwhile there are some disturbing signs. Many of the victims are minor girls. Last week a seven-year-old was assaulted in her school in New Delhi. Also, the government appears to have lost the sense of urgency which it displayed when people incensed by the gangrape were protesting in the streets. Its approach is marked by doublethink.

The situation calls for steps to alter the mindset which treats women as lesser citizens, but the government focuses on populist measures hoping for electoral dividends. In the wake of the gangrape, some sections had demanded that sex offenders be given capital punishment. The commission headed by former Chief Justice JS Verma, which was asked to recommend measures to ensure women’s security, did not favour it. However, the government provided for the extreme penalty through an ordinance, believing the demand has popular support.

In the budget presented to Parliament last week, Finance Minister P Chidambaram proposed the creation of a fund for women’s security and the setting up of an all-women public sector bank. He set apart Rs10 billion for each. Details are lacking because the proposals were put in at the last moment.

Some commercial banks have experimented with all-women branches but an entire bank exclusively for women is a novel idea. Criticising the proposal, Surjit Bhalla, an economist, said, “It’s the worst idea I have seen anywhere, and in any budget.” Chanda Kochhar, CEO of ICICI Bank, the country’s largest private sector bank, differed. “The proposed bank is for women,” she said. “The focus seems to be to fund women entrepreneurs and give them encouragement. And if it is an all-women bank, it’s going to be very efficient.”

Justice Verma saw the bank proposal as one of tokenism. “Such tokenism will not deliver if it is not backed by a complete change in mindset, both in government and in civil society as a whole,” he said.

The political leadership’s preoccupation with populist ideas to the exclusion of core aspects of women’s security stems from its ambivalent attitude. While committed to equality of sexes, it is weighed down by paternalistic traditions and is unable to ensure gender justice.

While making a statement in Parliament last week on the rape and murder of three minor girls in Maharashtra, Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde mentioned their names in utter disregard of the law which prohibits identification of sex crime victims. When opposition members drew attention to the impropriety, he withdrew the statement and the chairman ordered that the names be expunged from the records.

Ministers make statements in parliament on the basis of drafts prepared by senior officials. The inclusion of impermissible information in Shinde’s statement indicates lack of sensitivity and respect for legal provisions in the Home Minister’s office.

As many as 162 of the 552 members of the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament, had declared in affidavits filed at the time of the elections that they were facing various criminal charges. The charges against some of them included rape, molestation and other crimes against women.

Among the politicians hauled up in connection with crimes against women across the country is a former Haryana minister, Gopal Goyal Kanda, who has been charged with abetting the suicide of an airhostess.

Often powerful politicians escape prosecution. The names of two Kerala leaders, PJ Kurien, currently deputy chairman of the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of parliament, and PK Kunhalikutty, a senior minister of the state government, have come up repeatedly during the past one-and-a-half decades in cases of rape of minor girls. The investigators kept them out of the lists of accused claiming lack of evidence. However, material casting doubts on their version continue to surface from time to time. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, March 5, 2013.